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10 Years Later: ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Showed Us a Brand New Way to Root Against Nazis

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The tradition of Nazis being villains in movies — and those movies inviting audiences to cheer for those Nazis’ defeat — is one that goes back nearly as long as Nazis themselves. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) mocked Adolf Hitler before the U.S. had even entered World War II, and Hollywood didn’t wait for the fighting to be over before it started making dozens of movies about the struggle against the Nazis. This included Casablanca — with its corrupt Nazi viceroy, Strasser — and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, both released in 1942.

Movies about World War II continued to be produced in the ensuing decades, with mockery of Hitler a continued theme in the work of director Mel Brooks, who mockingly staged a pro-Hitler musical called Springtime For Hitler in 1972’s The Producers, made his own version of To Be Or Not To Be in 1983, and revisited The Producers with a musical play and second movie years after that. Serious World War II movies also had a brief resurgence in the late 1990s, with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan arriving in 1998, but no film has had a take on the Nazis quite like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which was released in August 21, 2009.

Inglourious Basterds Hitler

Tarantino’s sixth film, Inglourious Basterds is set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, and provides the sort of revisionist, fictionalized version of history that would become a trademark in the second half of the director’s career. It even includes something the director would later do again: the phrase “Once Upon a Time…” both as the title of the first chapter, and in the film’s marketing materials, and used as a way to fudge the actual facts of history.

For instance, Adolf Hitler himself does indeed appear in Inglourious Basterds (played by German actor Martin Wuttke), but it’s a small role, and one in which the Fuhrer is treated as a comedic foil, repeatedly screaming “nein! nein! nein!” and seen as the butt of jokes right up until his ultimate, ahistorical demise. Tarantino and Wuttke’s take on Hitler is definitely of a piece with that of Mel Brooks — or even of the series of Internet memes based on the 2004 movie Downfall — that became popular in the years prior to the release of Basterds.

The main Nazi villain in Inglourious Basterds is Hans Landa, the fictitious SS Colonel nicknamed “The Jew Hunter.” Played by Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning turn (and as an actor that was likely unfamiliar to most audiences at the time), Landa is a different kind of movie Nazi — one who’s as erudite as he is menacing. He’s also unusually self-aware, commenting on his “Jew hunter” nickname much the same way that a Nazi character in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be mused on his moniker, “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”

At the film’s end, we see Landa betray the Nazi cause, and then get betrayed himself, as the Basterds, rather than killing him, ruin his plans for a peaceful stateside retirement by carving a swastika into his skull. Between that, the death of Hitler, and the entire Nazi command burning in a Paris movie theater, it’s fair to say that Inglourious Basterds dispenses with its Nazi villains in an entirely different way than every other World War II film ever made (though Tarantino, for good measure, would include another scene of a roomful of Nazis getting torched in one of the movie-within-a-movie scenes from 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

Inglourious Basterds has multiple plot strands concerning payback as well — with the key ones including Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) seeking revenge against the Nazis who murdered her family, as well as a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers (the Basterds of the title) on the prowl to collect the scalps of Nazis at the behest of their commander (Brad Pitt) — that made it part of a mini-trend for films of its time period (following Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Edward Zwick’s Defiance), dealing with historical Jews taking up arms and getting revenge. (Though Tarantino, unlike the other two directors, resisted the urge to inexplicably cast Daniel Craig as a Jewish character.)

Inglourious Basterds scalping

However, that’s an aspect of Inglourious Basterds that’s worthy of re-examination: it doesn’t really interrogate itself in any way about the morality of what the Basterds are doing. Sure, it’s beyond satisfying to see Nazis defeated, especially during the war (and by extension, during the Holocaust), but we see the characters doing certain things — executing prisoners after their capture, carving swastikas into foreheads, scalping heads — that in real life would likely be classified as war crimes. Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which arrived four years earlier, was another story of Jewish revenge, but —  contrary to Seth Rogen’s famous monologue in Knocked UpMunich was almost entirely about the moral questions connected to that revenge, and the effect carrying it out had on the people doing it.

So, how does Inglourious Basterds fare on re-examination? It remains a notably uneven movie. Yes, Waltz’s turn as Lanza is one of the best performances in any Tarantino film, the writer-director’s central metaphor about Nazis living by and eventually dying at the movies is one that ultimately works, and the film’s exploration of the Nazi-era German film industry, one later explored in the 2018 documentary Hitler’s Hollywood, is compelling.

However, the film is at times also excruciatingly slow, with several scenes that seem to slog on forever. The tendency to let scenes drag towards the 20-minute mark was probably Tarantino’s biggest weakness as a filmmaker in the period of his career between Kill Bill Vol. 2 in 2004 and The Hateful Eight in 2015. Going for the slow burn is understandable, but if the dialogue isn’t popping like it did in Tarantino’s early films, the scenes can be a chore to sit through.

Yet, Quentin Tarantino is in love with film history like few other directors, and the more long-ago and obscure, the better. It’s virtually certain that he knows the entire history of World War II movies, and was aware every single trope that he’s extolling and subverting in Inglourious Basterds, as is likely certain with so many of his other films (he even paid subtle homage in Christopher Walken’s famous Pulp Fiction monologue to the 1943 film Air Force, with reference to that film’s main character, “a gunner named Winocki”). With Inglourious Basterds, he used that knowledge to create a film that fits in with the history of the genre, while going off into an entirely different direction.

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’

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Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.


No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.

These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.

Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.  

Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.

Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.

Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. 

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TIFF 2019: Best of the Fest

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The Lighthouse

Have a conversation about movies with your family or coworkers late in the year and there’s a good chance someone will break out this old chestnut: “There just weren’t many good movies this year.” It’s a statement that says more about the speaker than the state of cinema; there are more great movies in any given year than anyone can manage to see. One of the great qualities of the Toronto International Film Festival is that the massive slate of films includes its own high-profile premieres, as well as screenings of festival favorites that bowed to acclaim earlier at places like Cannes and Venice. It’s a clearinghouse of sorts that gives one of the most well-rounded glimpses into the year’s best movies. Below are the ten best films we caught at the festival.

Anne at 13,000 ft

Anne at 13,000 ft

This world premiere, directed by Kazik Radwanski, initially presents the eponymous Anne (an astounding Deragh Campbell) as a daycare attendant having her first experiences with skydiving. Though Anne is alternately blissful and ecstatic when she’s jumping out of a plane, something is amiss at work, where she’s more interested in playing with the kids than supervising them. As she starts a new relationship with a man she met at a wedding (Matt Johnson), cracks in her façade start to appear. Radwanski keeps Anne’s breakdown front and center by putting her up close in the frame; she’s on screen almost every second of its brief 75-minute runtime. Featuring an astounding, aching lead performance, Anne at 13,000 ft sympathetically captures the moment the world starts to tilt for one woman. (Brian Marks)

Crazy World

Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema. Placing this as the closing night film for the Midnight Madness program only ensures it gets a bigger audience than it otherwise would have. (Christopher Cross)

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to fully scripted films after three adventurous, mostly improvised movies that divided critics. Though Jägerstätter was eventually beatified for his stand against the Nazis, Diehl and Malick don’t try to make him a saint — he’s just someone taking a stand when overcome by conscience. Malick’s searching camera makes the Austrian hillside look invitingly gorgeous and lush, turning it into a kind of paradise from which Jägerstätter is brutally snatched. His more improvised films are all essential works of cinema, but A Hidden Life is Malick’s best work since his career-defining masterpiece, The Tree of Life. (Brian Marks)

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Receiving the TIFF Ebert Director Award this year, Taika Waititi came out with two awards, as his latest film, Jojo Rabbit,won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, as well — and that for a film no other director would probably consider making: a comedy about Hitler. It’s a reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time. (Christopher Cross)

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers blew everyone away with his debut feature, The Witch, which ratcheted up the paranoia until there was nowhere to go but supernatural. While his sophomore feature doesn’t feature a Black Phillip-stand in, The Lighthouse trades witchcraft and Satan for mermaids and Lovecraft. The result is another film drenched in paranoia, as its two lead actors give some of the funniest, nuanced, and entertaining performances of their careers. The Lighthouse isn’t just Eggers proving he’s not a one-trick pony — it’s Eggers proving he’s one of the greatest horror filmmakers working today. (Christopher Cross)

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy, though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions. The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire began attracting rapturous praise when it premiered at Cannes, and its presence at TIFF has only confirmed its stature. Set sometime in the late 18th Century, Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, the daughter of a respected painter who has her own artistic talents. She has been called to Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, forcing Marianne to get creative. Over time, she begins to question her role in Héloïse’s future, and the two develop an unshakeable bond. Herlant and Haenel give wonderfully tender performances, perfectly playing off each other for escalating dramatic tension. Sciamma is almost clinical in the way she films the two women, yet there’s a welcome touch of the fantastic that occasionally intrudes. A love story for the ages. (Brian Marks)

Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Rose Glass’s directorial debut, Saint Maud, is a film that wowed many audiences at TIFF, even if it didn’t necessarily win any awards. Picked up by A24 soon after the festival, the film highlights a nurse in private care that goes to extreme lengths to show her devotion to God and curing the world of sickness. A slow-burn that is masterfully handled through character work, this psychological thriller takes its time to get where its going, but is never a bore while getting there. Yet, once it does make its way to the intense final act, there is little room to breathe as Saint Maud moves and moves until its phenomenal conclusion. A strong debut with a fantastic lead performance by Morfydd Clark, this is the kind of film that will have you biting your nails as it sucks you into the mind of someone passionately devoted to God and trying to save her soul. (Christopher Cross)

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

With his debut feature, The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin reminds us of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema. The film documents the rise of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a truly bizarre style, featuring gorgeously saturated yet simultaneously faded colors that evoke the feel of early color films from the 1920s and ’30s. Dan Beirne plays a neurotic version of the future politician, who lives in perpetual adolescence and has a dark secret: he gets his rocks off with women’s heels. Rankin is clearly indebted to fellow Canadian Guy Maddin, and takes the same relish as he pulls from bits of film history while thoroughly deconstructing the traditional biopic. Rankin’s off-putting sense of humor and the movie’s otherworldly visuals will frighten off many viewers, but hopefully, it will delight even more. The Twentieth Century won the award for Best Canadian First Feature, and it’s sure to be a midnight movie classic. (Brian Marks)

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness. (Christopher Cross)

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‘Villains’ Offers Strong Performances, But Not Much Else

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Through its first nine months, 2019 has been quite a year for movies in which characters are trapped in a house for most of the running time, and that continues with Villains, an unconventional but ultimately underwhelming entry in the horror-comedy subgenre in which four very good performances can’t save a talky, underwhelming script. 

Written and directed by the team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, Villains was on the “Black List” of unproduced screenplays a few years back, and it debuted at South by Southwest this past spring. Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise himself, in his normal handsome visage) and Millennial horror queen Maika Monroe play a dimwitted but loving couple who are also small-time robbers, in the tradition of bumbling wannabe criminals like in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Fleeing a robbery they committed at a gas station and dreaming of a life in Florida, the pair stumble into the home of George and Gloria (Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan, and Kyra Sedgwick), where things take a bit of a creepy and violent turn as the petty crooks discover the thing (or things) that this other couple is hiding.

Overall, Villains feels at a piece with that Southern, used-car-salesman patter associated with the current prestige cable shows The Righteous Gemstones and On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Unfortunately, though it sports a good structure and all four leads perform well, Villains never quite finds that extra gear. Also, the film isn’t quite as good at managing the often-jarring tonal shifts between horror and comedy that such entries as Ready or Not and Satanic Panic were able to pull off. 

Villains has a lot of what we’ve seen in this type of movie before: long sections where one or both of the protagonists are held hostage, that slow realization that characters we previously thought were normal are far from it, and bloody violence that tends to come out of nowhere. It also has that annoying thing where movie characters who run out of gas never had any indication until that moment that they were running low. And here, unlike in most of those instances, the characters have just come from — literally — robbing a gas station. 

However, the cast isn’t a problem. Monroe, so memorable in such horror movies as It Follows and Greta, is the highlight, while Skarsgård shows himself as an interesting actor when not encumbered by the Pennywise clown makeup. Donovan, sporting a wispy mustache, plays his part over-the-top, while Sedgwick, who isn’t on screen nearly enough these days, is clearly having a great time playing a wildly unstable character. 

Villains begins with a strong, heavy metal-scored introduction, and there’s a nifty, animated closing credits sequence. A shame that both offer a much more impressive visual and filmmaking sense than the movie we just watched. 

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ Examines a Criminal’s Upbringing

Justin Kurzel’s latest film boasts a great supporting cast, and applies a gritty aesthetic to one of Australia’s most renowned criminals.

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True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s latest film — a fictionalized version of the story of Ned Kelly — takes an Australian outlaw and attempts to humanize and emphasize the importance of taking your life in your own hands. Bolstered by an exceptional supporting cast, another great score by Jed Kurzel, a gritty attitude, and fantastic final act, True History of the Kelly Gang is a movie that will best be remembered for its moments — not the narrative in between. Focused heavily on the character work, Kurzel delivers a satisfying enough period drama that demands a lot from its actors in order to provide nuance in a fairly standard biopic structure that builds to a blistering climax and somber finale.

A tale of criminals being the heroes to the oppressed, True History of the Kelly Gang takes its time warming the audience to who Ned Kelly (George MacKay) ultimately becomes, and why he was revered by others in the community. Beginning with his childhood (and literally featuring diegetic intertitles that state “Boy” and “Man” when their respective segments begin), the film explores Kelly’s upbringing from his Irish immigrant family, led by matriarch Ellen Kelly (Essie Davis in a very potent, voracious performance), and her many decisions that lead to Ned’s ultimate notoriety. More aptly, Ellen finds herself juggling father figures, as well as who she wants her son to become, while attempting to drown out any of her husband’s proclivities and vices.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Ned logs his adventures throughout and starts telling his own story for the ones he loves to read when he eventually passes. “Every man should be the author of his own story” is a mantra Kelly holds onto, and it frames the film for Kurzel into something more singular, only occasionally looking at how others may portray Kelly’s story. That being said, True History of the Kelly Gang flows in a very linear-fashion, and often feels like it’s just going through the motions in order to get to the next big moment. Even with early appearances from Russell Crowe (in a role that is a lot of fun to watch him chew on) and Charlie Hunnam, the film often feels like it knows where it wants to go, but has a runtime to pad out before it feels right to get there. The script surrounds Ned with violence and tough decisions, which work in the moment, but getting to them is sometimes a chore.

Moments are what keep True History of the Kelly Gang interesting. While the main villain (played exceptionally by Nicholas Hoult) keeps the film strung together as he chases Ned throughout Australia, the journey never transcends the crafting of individual scenes. Whether it’s Hoult’s character’s sly trickery and deceit that unfold and enrapture, a tough decision that either leads to violence or trouble (but never a more virtuous outcome), or the final gunfight where the visuals, score, and sound design all cascade into each other to form one of the most memorable scenes of the year, these moments don’t work because of the characters that were built, but instead satisfy due to an understanding of film techniques. The screenplay itself is solid, but never amounts to a whole as strong as the individual parts.

True History of the Kelly Gang

This holds True History of the Kelly Gang back, turns it into a very well-made film that never really justifies the time it spends building upon Ned Kelly’s character. The story could have opened with Kelly as a man, and audiences would likely not feel much different about his plight. This often is the case with Kurzel’s films, however; they know where they want to go, but don’t rarely justify the time they take to get there. Instead, beautiful visuals and a score that moves between raucous and dissonant distract from an otherwise standard telling of a man brought into a violent life, and his fight to be himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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